My first experience as a fulltime pastor was in a village which boasted a population of 369. Everyone in our church was thrilled when a couple that had recently moved to town joined The Baptist Church. The wife was a dedicated musician, but she was also determined that our little congregation become just like her previous church. She became very frustrated when our attempt at starting children’s choirs never took shape “the way we did it back home.” Our adult choir couldn’t pull off a cantata to her liking. Our deacons didn’t “deac” the way she expected. Our bereavement meals at funeral time weren’t organized properly.
Let me hasten to add: This woman loved the Lord deeply and was a tireless worker. She was committed to Christ and wanted to share his love with others. Her problem was that she never came to love the church she had. Instead, she loved the idealized church she had fashioned in her mind.
Our church had flaws and shortcomings. We needed desperately to become more missional (even though that word wasn’t used back then). Did we need some new blood? Yes. Did we need a fresh set of eyes to see what we could not see? For sure. But we also needed to be loved just as we were.
“We can always learn from others. But at some point our discontent with where we are breeds a contempt which keeps us from loving the church we have.”
I believe all churches (including mine) must courageously abandon outdated practices and attitudes. Congregations must change drastically in order to touch our world with God’s grace. But sometimes, amid all the pulse-taking, evaluations, strategy planning and critiquing, we forget to love the church we have. This does not mean we become complacent and resist change. It means we pay attention to the movement of God’s Spirit, here and now, in our imperfect and disheveled condition.
The internet has made it possible for anyone to “attend church” virtually, offering choices that can include inspiring worship with incredible music, relevant sermons and an effective outreach ministry. Sometimes we are tempted to ask, “Why can’t my church be like that one?”
Yes, we can always learn from others. But at some point our discontent with where we are breeds a contempt which keeps us from loving the church we have. The late Eugene Peterson said it well: “If we don’t grasp church as Christ’s body, we will always be dissatisfied, impatient, angry, dismayed, or disgusted with what we see” (Practice Resurrection, 2010).
The church I serve is blessed with exceptional children and youth ministries. When high school seniors leave us for college, we occasionally hear one say, “I’m going to find a church just like this one.” Our reply is always, “No, you won’t find one like ours. You’ll find the one God has for you, one in which you will be challenged and grow in different ways. That church won’t do things the way we do them; it will do many things better.”
The Apostle Paul knew more about the church’s warts and blemishes than any other person of his time. Yet when I read his letters to the Corinthian, Philippian and Thessalonian churches, I hear him saying, “Despite the failures, impotence and embarrassments of your church’s witness, never view your church with contempt or disgust. Love the church you have.”
During Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry, most of the German church was failing miserably, being co-opted by Hitler’s seductive pseudo-gospel. Bonhoeffer was frustrated by the compromise and cowardice. No one had more of a right to wash his hands of the church and walk away from orthodox faith. But in Life Together, he wrote:
“If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches that are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”
Will you join me? Let’s love the church we have.